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Obama’s State of the Union Speeches and Education: A Scorecard

By Alyson Klein — January 22, 2014 3 min read
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Set your DVRs: President Barack Obama will give his State of the Union speech next week, on Jan. 28. So that means a week from now, we’ll all be mulling over the education portion. After all, Obama (and most other presidents) typically use their annual address to Congress to outline an edu-wish list for the year. It often includes at least one big idea (whether brand new or recycled from an earlier proposal).

Is Obama usually able to get what he wants from Congress? Short answer: Not so much. For the longer answer, check out these past State of the Union speeches:

•2013. The Ask: Obama proposes a broad expansion of preschool, without offering a lot of detail, such as how he’d pay for it. (The answer, a new tax on tobacco products came later in the administration’s budget proposal.) He also unveiled a Race to the Top-style competition for science and math at the high school level.

Did it happen? Not really. The preschool proposal has been introduced as legislation by the two top Democrats in Congress on education issues—Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. But it hasn’t been enacted and probably won’t be, given its $75 billion pricetag. Congress refused to fund the new high school competition, so the Obama administration went digging in its couch cushions and coughed up $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor funds for at least one round of the competition.

•2012. The Ask: Obama urged Congress to tie federal college aid in part to student outcomes, such as graduation rates for at-risk student populations, a theme he’s hit a number of times since. And he proposed a big, undefined competitive-grant program to improve the teaching profession.

Did it happen? Not yet. Ensuring students get more bang for their buck has been a theme as lawmakers examine the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but neither the House or Senate has considered a bill that would actually enact Obama’s proposal. And Congress hasn’t funded the competitive-grant program for teaching, although there were provisions to improve teacher preparation in Democratic and Republican bills to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

•2011. The Ask: Obama asked Congress to pass a bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA law that closely mirrored his blueprint for revising the measure. He also announced an initiative to train 100,000 teachers in STEM subjects.

Did it happen? Nope. Instead, the administration has awarded more than 40 waivers giving states relief from some of the mandates of the current version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has passed a GOP-only renewal of the law, and Senate Democrats have approved a very different bill, with only Democratic support. The administration doesn’t seem to care much about reauthorization anymore. Oh, and that STEM teacher initiative was never funded.

•2010. The Ask: Obama asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would reshape the student lending program by getting rid of subsidized lenders, in favor of having students borrow directly from the U.S. Treasury. The savings, he said, could be directed to the Pell Grant program, which faced a shortfall, as well as to new initiatives on community colleges and early-childhood education.

The president also bragged about the success of Race to the Top, and urged Congress to pass an ESEA bill that expanded the program to all 50 states. And he singled out education as a big winner in a year where domestic spending was supposed to stay level, proposing a $4 billion increase for the U.S. Department of Education, plus more money if lawmakers passed a reauthorization of ESEA.

Did it happen? Yes! Well, sorta. Some of it did. Congress, did, indeed, make the major changes to the student lending program in 2010 that the president suggested, passing them as part of the landmark health-care overhaul bill. And some of the savings were directed to Pell Grants. But, by the time the bill made it through Congress, the early-childhood education program had been jettisoned, due to lack of funds. And the community college initiative had been scaled back considerably. Plus, the idea wasn’t brand new for the State of the Union address—it had come out in a previous budget proposal, and lawmakers had already begun working to make it a reality when Obama gave it a high-profile nod in his speech.

What about that funding increase? The Education Department’s budget actually went down in fiscal year 2011, when all was said and done, in large part because Republicans took back the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 election.

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